Torah of Birds
This past weekend included Shabbat Shirah, during which the Torah portion recounts the story of the Jewish people moving through the Sea of Reeds to freedom. It’s a seminal moment in our identity as a people. One of the customs that has developed over the years is to feed the birds on this weekend.
I feed the birds every day, not just on Shabbat Shirah. I love their beauty and grace, and the sound of their songs. I also love that our tradition teaches us to feed the birds on this day.
Why did this custom arise? There are two stories given. The first, and better known, is that the birds were with us, joining our singing as we crossed the sea. Midrash even tells us that as they travelled through the sea, trees miraculously grew alongside the path, and the people picked fruit not just for themselves, but to feed the birds, who then joined the Song of the Sea. In this tradition, we feed the birds to commemorate that feeding by our ancestors, and to thank the birds for their singing.
The second telling is that during the sojourn in the desert, when the Divine fed us with manna, there were two troublemakers who wanted to undermine Moses’s authority and the people’s belief in divine care and sustenance. Moses taught that on the day before Shabbat one should gather a double portion of manna and save half for the next day so as not to work at gathering it on the day of rest. The troublemakers took extra manna and spread it out during the night erev Shabbat, so they could show the next morning that Moses had been wrong about no manna falling on Shabbat. However, when the people listened to the saboteurs and went out to see manna in the fields on Shabbat morning, there was none there. While they were sleeping, ravens had come and eaten the manna. In this tradition, we feed birds on Shabbat Shirah to thank them for undermining the plot and saving Moses from embarrassment.
What else does Judaism teach about birds? In Genesis, we read, “let the waters bring forth…birds that fly above the earth across the expanse of the sky.” (Genesis 1:20). Because they fly, traveling between earth and sky, they are seen as traveling between earthly and heavenly realms. Thus, birds are often seen as messengers of the Divine. We do well to heed what they teach us. In the two following verses, “God saw that this was good.” (Genesis 1:21) and “…let the birds increase on the earth.” (Genesis 1:22)
In the story of the flood, after the ark comes to rest, Noah sends out a dove. The dove eventually returns with an olive leaf, a sign that there was once more dry land to walk on. (Genesis 8:6-12) It is easy to see the bird as a divine messenger in this context.
Ravens are again messengers in Kings, when they feed the prophet Elijah as he hides in the desert. (I Kings 17:2-6)
We read more of the good characteristics of birds in the words of the Nevi’im (Prophets). Isaiah tells us that those who trust in the Divine will be strong and resilient, like eagles. (Isaiah 40:31) Jeremiah extols their wisdom, in contrast to the shortsightedness of the people. “Even the stork in the sky knows her seasons, and the turtledove, swift, and crane keep the time of their coming; But my people pay no heed to the law of the Lord.” (Jeremiah 8:7)
In the Writings, Ketuvim, there are many references to birds. The Psalms extol their song and their beauty and mention that they are found nesting at divine altar. “Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself in which to set her young, near Your altar, O Lord of hosts, my king and my God.” (Psalm 84:4) Many references in Psalms and elsewhere remind us that they are exemplars of relying on the Divine who knows them, feeds them, and cares for them. “I know every bird of the mountains.” (Psalm 50:11)
There’s midrash about birds and the Psalms, too, as recounted by Rabbi Debra Orenstein in the Jewish Journal.
David, who is said to have written the psalms, understood that the Temple would be destroyed, and feared that the psalms recited there would be forgotten. So he taught the psalms to the birds. (In Hebrew numerology, the word “nest” equals 150, the exact number of psalms.) On Shabbat Shirah, while it is still winter, Jews feed bread to the birds to hear them chirp and “sing” psalms. We sustain them with gratitude, knowing that nature also sustains us. No matter what, Jews, like birds, must continue to sing.
And the book of Job teaches us of their wisdom, as well as reiterating that they are cared for by divine providence. “Who provides food for the raven [w]hen his young cry out to God [a]nd wander about without food?” (Job 38:41) Job responds to his neighbors, his false comforters, telling them to “…ask the beasts, and they will teach you; [t]he birds of the sky, they will tell you,” (Job 12:7)
We should put away for ever the negative stereotype of a “birdbrain” as a ditzy, foolish person. Birds are smart and resourceful. Ravens in particular are known to solve puzzles, use tools, and speak. They also have a sense of humor and enjoy playing. Geese fly in a vee formation because it’s the best way to circumvent wind resistance. The strongest geese fly in the front of the vee, making it easier for younger or weaker geese to keep up with the flock. They rotate the leader, the point of the vee, to avoid overtaxing any individual, and they honk loudly, cheering each other on.
What can we learn from the birds?
- Don’t stereotype or judge on incomplete knowledge. “Birdbrain” should be a complement.
- Look at the big picture aka the bird’s eye view
- Rely on and trust the divine
- Be alert to messengers
- Work for the good of all
- Appreciate and create beauty
- Make a joyful noise
I close by repeating this blessing for the birds: Blessed are you, Shekhinah, divine presence in our world, who gives the birds their song. May their music inspire us to live the song you have written on our hearts.
Bible verses taken from The Jewish Study Bible, Adele Berlin and Marc Avi Brettler, editors. ©1983, 1999, Jewish Publication Society; ©2004, Oxford University Press.
This teaching from last Saturday’s service was first posted on my personal blog, Wrenaissance Reflections.